The skinny: The No. 3 Wildcats held on to defeat a scrappy Maryland team 72-69 as the Terrapins took the Wildcats to the wire up in Brooklyn, N.Y. In the first ever Barclays Center Classic, the Wildcats (1-0) saw their lead shrink smaller and smaller until the Terrapins (0-1) took a lead in the middle of the second half. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer got off to a slow start but found his stroke to lead the Cats with 19 points. Freshman Archie Goodwin had a strong first half and finished with 16 points on the night. But it was junior guard Jarrod Polson who held things together for the Wildcats down the stretch. Polson kicked in a career-high ten points with three assists in 22 crucial minutes to stabilize the offense and help lead UK to a three-point victory.
The difference: Field-goal percentage. Kentucky got off to a great start offensively, scoring 49 first-half points. Meanwhile, Maryland struggled to get shots to fall for most of the night. The Wildcats shot 43 percent from the field compared to Maryland's 33 percent, but the Terrapins were 3 of 19 from beyond the arc. Kentucky shot 46 percent from downtown, hitting six of its 13 attempts. The Terps could have made quite a run against Kentucky as they pulled down 28 offensive rebounds, but they failed to score on their second-chance opportunities and the UK defense continued to challenge shot attempts.
Player of the game: Jarrod Polson. With Kentucky having trouble taking care of the ball in spurts during both the first half and second half, Polson came in and played 22 minutes as point guard Ryan Harrow struggled to get things going for UK after battling illness this week in practice. Polson came in and immediately stabilized the offense. The junior found himself in the right place at the right time throughout the night as he had a couple of big stick backs, a circus-act layup, and hit two big free throws at the end of the game to extend Kentucky's lead. He added three assists, picked up a steal and made four of his five shots from the field. Calipari alluded to the fact that the staff was comfortable with Polson in the game, and as foul trouble mounted in the first half, Polson made the most of his opportunity and made a strong case for more playing time in the immediate future.
Turning point: After a Charles Mitchell layup at the 5:07 mark in the second half to give Maryland the 63-62 lead, Polson came up with a stick back at the 5:09 mark as he cleaned up a Kentucky miss to put UK back ahead, 64-63. UK would never turn back from there as the Cats rode the Polson wave the rest of the way. From there, the Wildcats would build a five-point lead. The Terrapins fought back and made it close, but Polson would come down with seven seconds remaining to hit both free throws and give UK its final three-point margin.
Key stat: Rebounding. Though Kentucky still managed to come away with the win, Maryland had several opportunities to put up big numbers against the Cats. They outrebounded UK 54-38, including a staggering 28 offensive rebounds that nearly cost Kentucky the game. Had the Cats limited Maryland's second-chance opportunities, they may have been able to maintain a much more comfortable lead for most of the game. Against better shooting teams, second-chance points could really hurt the Wildcats the rest of the season if they don't get that corrected. With the amount of size that UK possesses, the big men have to learn how to play with one another in the post and know that when one of them is going to block, the others must rebound. The guards also need to do a better job of picking up long rebounds as many of Maryland's second chances came on long misses on the opposite side of the rim.
Unsung heroes: Nerlens Noel. In his much-anticipated collegiate debut, Noel was as good defensively as advertised. He altered shots all night, came up with two steals, three blocked shots and pulled down nine rebounds. He was particularly aggressive offensively out of the gate, hitting a nice jump hook to start the game for UK, but he cooled down offensively the rest of the way. However, his defensive presence in the lane led to several missed shots around the basket for UK and contributed a great deal to Maryland's 33 percent shooting from the field.
He said what?: "The team with 7-footers, five guys that can jump above the square, should not give up 30 offensive rebounds."- Calipari
"They're going to be fine. What they were is manhandled a little bit today. Now, we had 11 blocks today." - Calipari on his freshmen
"We're not ready to play 40 minutes of basketball. We're just not ready." - Calipari
"(Polson was) ready for his opportunity, and as a coach there's nothing that makes me happier. The whole team was hugging him in there." - Calipari on Polson's play
What this one means: Calipari talked about how he wasn't sure how his team would play when they actually got to play another Division I opponent. He knew that starting with Maryland and Duke would be very tough tests for his young team early on, but that no matter the outcome Kentucky would use these first two games as learning experiences. His players, particularly the freshmen and newcomers who struggled a bit at times in a brand-new environment, definitely showed where they excelled. They also showed their glaring weaknesses and gave Calipari and his staff an opportunity to see where they stand early in the season. Kentucky was able to hang on despite not having worked on situational play much in practice, and the Cats did it while not playing their best basketball. At times the Wildcats looked far ahead of expectations, but as the second half wore on, UK came back to reality. Overall it was a great opportunity to see what areas to address before their first matchup with Duke in 10 years this Tuesday in Atlanta.